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I need to breathe

Get up, look at that news

Markers of enslavers

Tearing down

Pushed in the water

Like them chains

Clanking to the ground

Like the bodies of ancestors past

Forgotten in the water?

‘So-called australia. Born a prison, still a prison’ are the words of Yorta Yorta song-carrier Neil Morris, also known as DRMGNOW. Posted on Instagram, these words accompanied a photograph of one of the nine public housing towers forced into a heavily policed lockdown. The following day the youth division of Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA) was leading the way in community response: mobilising hundreds of people to receive, coordinate, and dispatch donations. Moreover, young people, mainly of African heritage, were coordinating other responses such as media, translations both written and verbal, and liaising with unprepared DHHS staff and police. If it were not for the young people, articulate, strong, fearless, standing as a front to the haphazard police/state response, then the governmental response would look very different. 

Rather than give a detailed description of the events that took place (the #freethe9blocks hashtag on twitter can do this), I was asked to reflect on the lockdown of the towers. The suggestion came after conversations with IPCS, as we were searching for another space to house donations, a secondary location used in Brunswick was no longer available. 

I will try my best, but as privileged as I am, I am tired, my friends and others are tired. This was the subject of a conversation with Djed Press founder and good friend of mine, Hella Ibrahim, who channelled her anger to summarise the collective sentiment among our peers: 

“And while this is going on, everything else is still happening – BLM protests, black deaths in custody numbers continue to rise, poverty is being criminalised, all of it. I can’t even imagine what it means to be Blak in this country, under this government, in this society – I cannot fathom it. And I cannot fathom how exhausting it is, how exhausted everyone else must be. I am sick of it.”

The tiredness (and indeed a lack of space to breathe) is a product of the violence of empire and the colony in which we live—one that privileges space for white Anglo-Celtic settlers and attempts to co-opt non-white and non-Anglo-Celtic settlers.

This prison-style lockdown, as Neil justly articulates it, is reflective of a broader systemic and systematic injustice that has to do with the theft of these unceded lands. In the context of an ongoing Black Lives Matter movement (which has been ongoing for centuries), friends and family were sharing simultaneously content from Turtle Island (USA), Aboriginal deaths in custody, and the nine blocks. Indeed, the architectures of a racialized carceral state (operating as Australia, as the USA) makes a repeated appearance at the public housing estates. Almost three years ago, I stood where I stood about one month ago. I bore witness to the testing grounds for police (where the racialized poor, Muslim and Black live) as these bodies are little empathised with by the rich and white. 

In November 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the Melbourne Pavillion, using a site across the road from 120 Racecourse Road, to preach to a crowd of awed Nazi sympathisers. The chosen location could hardly be more ‘provocative’ for the so-called ‘provocateur’ who has not only amassed followers but also accumulated wealth for his misogynistic, Islamophobic, racist, and often fascist elitist rants. Inside the pavilion, some followers proudly donned ‘Make Australia Great Again’ red caps, and brandished an array of flags such as the KEK flag, a 21st century mimicking of the Nazi war flag (it replaces the swastika with a KEK logo and the red with green as well as an added ‘4Chan’ symbol). At the doorstep of their homes, residents witnessed and joined the contingent of mainly white-settler activists who had set up an anti-racist protest. It was, of course, heavily policed and once most of the white middle class activists left, the police descended onto the estates where mostly young black brothers retaliated, gently pushing past me, saying “sorry sister” on their way to defend their homes. These events were followed by a mediatised campaign against ‘African Gangs’ that were apparently terrorising Melbournians, a reflection of the opposite. 

In my own research, I study the intersections of race, class, empire, media, mediatised representation, online interaction and activism, as possible vectors for disruption? (The question mark is on purpose.) Having recently come back from North Africa in February, having met with young freedom advocates (some don’t like the word activist), I can see some similarities in what people were saying in Morocco vis-à-vis the potential for disruption with a movement that’s mediatised, versus collective building from the ground-up and face-to-face contact. The thing that people pointed out to me overwhelmingly is the state co-option and, to put it crudely, the slump of various movements despite strong social media use by young human rights advocates. 

Riffian human rights defenders (an Indigenous group from the north of Morocco) and I worked on a paper we presented at the Activism at the Margins conference, looking at Indigenous forms of direct democracy as the basis of the Hirak al Rif movement (which is ongoing). Despite the heavy and resourceful media tactics, including diffusion in a variety of languages, the core of the 2016/7 series of protests were initiated through meeting circles in public spaces where everyone could join to discuss injustices and debate possible avenues for justice. And many defenders and advocates for freedom across the country shared similar views, that is, the importance of on-the-ground work and face-to-face contact.

These dynamics came into play in June when the towers were in prison lockdown. Activists, often middle class and often white but not always, were very vocal online, encouraging anyone and everyone to do the utmost. Looking around at the AMSSA centre, it’s easy to see that this is a community-run effort led by determined young people connected to the communities in the towers. 

The people that were not part of the community were easy to spot, they were few in number, either police or health officials, the vast majority of whom were white, if not Anglo-Celtic. Meanwhile in the centre, to the surprise of the state, tech-competent, articulate African fam were coordinating necessary translations in a variety of languages, communicating between the lockdown in the flats, the command centre (AMSSA), and government agencies such as DHHS, the police, ambulance, SES services and so on. They were coordinating a humanitarian response to an act of violence enacted by the state given its own mismanagement of COVID-19. 

As it is currently understood, the second outbreak of COVID-19 comes from hotels housing returned overseas travellers. It was partly caused by the outsourcing of ‘policing’ to private security firms, employees of which were not adequately trained because: a) no one wanted to foot the bill, or b) these returned travellers (often rich enough to travel) were not perceived as a threat. These events unveil the structures that govern our world and point to a worrying acceptance of a dystopian police-state reality, the very founding of this colony.

Yet, the crowds that showed up for the stop black deaths in custody rally did not show up for the mainly poor, Muslim, and/or Black communities here. As a symptom of US imperialism, Black culture has been exported in such a way, and the architectures of social media, founded on principles of individual capitalist liberalism, work in such a way as to fragment ‘activist’ populations by amplifying identity-based virtue-signalling. One volunteer on the ground rolled their eyes knowingly to me saying “they’re just here for their Instagram pic… they’ll stay like 30 minutes and leave.” They were referring to the non-Black people who had come to help, who ignorantly overlooked removing the blatant non-Halal foods, and then posed for photographs. The packing crowd in the carpark posed for a pic to be shared on social media too, white saviourism. 

White saviours help co-opt and transform the protests of the oppressed by re-presenting them in a form unwittingly fitting the very ideological frameworks of imperial oppression. Not to mention robbing the protestors of their voices and agency.

The morphing or restructuring of white saviourism equally means that other settlers (many whom are also subject to racial slurs) took on some of these aspects. I believe this is a symptom of the settler-colonial paradigms of so-called Australia where non-Muslim volunteers who had presumably come to ‘help’ were shouting instructions about what is halal. This was a mutation of white supremacy fitting neatly in a so-called post-colonial body. The violence of empire, colony, the state and its institutions (police, government departments and agencies) are equally carried out through everyday microaggressions. 

So, the city called Melbourne—the name that precedes colonial mapping being the lands of the Wurundjeri or Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation, or Narrm (for the broader colonial name of Port Phillip Bay)—is constricted by settler-colonial paradigms, out of which arise all forms of violence. The towers exemplify the geographies of colonial violence, sites of struggles on which and through which empire and state actors provoke and enact violence, their claim to power over land, Aboriginal land. The state’s lack of community consultation is the easiest example in the hard lockdown of those towers, through which to see that its residents are seen as unworthy citizens in the eyes of the settler-colony. Unlike their neighbours across the street in more affluent dwellings, the residents of the towers are mostly poor, Black, Muslim and from newly arrived families. Citizens that can’t be trusted to behave responsibly, unlike the returned travellers who were the source of the second outbreak. 

The difference between the two cohorts is not only household income but also skin colour, features and religious identity. This type of eugenic categorisation is embedded in the colonial hierarchies that have permeated the structures of the modern state since its founding as a penal colony and the ongoing genocide of Aboriginal people. Meriki Onus, a Gunnai and Gunditjmara community organiser, spoke about this powerfully on 3CR during the media frenzy about the so-called ‘African Gangs’.

Efforts at resistance are misrepresented by the powers that be, but they’re also betrayed by the white/class saviours who not only do not understand but are also: a) not interested in understanding, b) too busy striking poses, and c) confident that they have the correct understanding so that they can go on talking about the struggles of others in the ‘correct’ way while doing a and especially b. 

No room to breathe, indeed. 

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Scheherazade Bloul is a writer, radio host and PhD candidate at the UNESCO Chair for comparative research into cultural understanding and social justice, hosted by the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University. Scheherazade is a member of IPCS.

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